March 10, 2012

What If England Votes Against the Covenant?

Today, four more Church of England dioceses voted against returning adoption of the proposed Anglican Covenant to the General Synod for final action. Two dioceses voted in favor. (See details on Thinking Anglicans.) To date, 17 dioceses have voted against the Covenant; 10 have voted for it. If 5 more dioceses vote in the negative, no further consideration will be given the Covenant during the current General Synod. Of the 44 English dioceses, 17 have not yet voted.

What will happen if a majority of dioceses do not vote to return the Covenant to the General Synod? Will the Church of England have rejected the Covenant or not?

A defeat of the Covenant in diocesan synods would appear to prevent the General Synod from considering the Covenant before it ends its current incarnation in July 2015. If this happens, however, it would appear that the Church of England will have failed to adopt the Covenant. But this is not the same as refusing to adopt it.

Were the Covenant a carefully drawn legal document (instead of a legal-sounding document drawn up largely by politically oriented clergy, some of whom were very angry), the text would specify the exact form by which adoption must be declared to the Communion, and there would be a deadline for adoption. Failure to declare adoption before the deadline would be construed as rejection.

Not only has the Covenant not been subject to reasonable, unambiguous adoption procedures, but also it authorizes churches to act in certain circumstances as if it had adopted the pact.

One might imagine the Church of England attempting and failing to adopt the Covenant every five years. There could be no end to it. On the other hand, Southeast Asia “acceded” to the Covenant but added a “Preamble to the Letter of Accession” that, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, asserts that the words of the Covenant mean only what that province says they mean. Somewhat less arrogantly, Ireland “subscribed” to the Covenant, seemingly circumscribing its effect on the Irish church. How the actions of Southeast Asia or Ireland differ from that of, say, Mexico, which simply let its “yes” be “yes,” is anyone’s guess.

But let me return to the Church of England for a moment. According to §4.2.8 of the Covenant text,
Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 [The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution] shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.
“Questions” about the actions of a church can only be raised with respect to a church that has adopted the Covenant (§4.2.3). If the Church of England has not definitively rejected the Covenant, even though its dioceses have essentially voted down adoption of it, would not the church get the best of both worlds? It would have no obligations to satisfy any other churches with its behavior, yet it could argue that it is “still in the process of adoption,” since adoption had not actually been precluded. Therefore, representatives of the Church of England, including, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury, could serve as they always have. This peculiar state of affairs could go on indefinitely.

Churches could object that failure to approve is, in fact, rejection, and assert that the Church of England was no longer “still in the process of adoption.” Who would adjudicate such a claim? According to §4.2.2, the Standing Committee “shall monitor the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments.” Would the Standing Committee, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose authority hung in the balance, decide the matter? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury recuse himself? Would the Church of England find itself in the second tier of the Anglican Communion. God only knows!

All this just goes to show what an incompetently drawn document the Covenant is. Some have feared that the Covenant could have the Communion arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Verily, I say unto you, it could have us arguing about who is allowed to count the dancing angels and what methods of enumeration may be used.

What does all this mean for The Episcopal Church. It means, I think, that we should try to drive a stake through the heart of this misbegotten Covenant. We should pass a resolution at the 2012 General Convention stating that (1) we are, and expect to continue to be, a member of the Anglican Communion, but that (2) we decline to adopt the Anglican Covenant. We should not simply vote down a resolution to adopt the Covenant.


  1. The structures of life the Anglican Communion intensified through the middle 20th century and especially after the Second War in concert with the rising tide of commitment toward the ecumenical movement. Which had as it's ultimate goal the organic reunion of the universal Church. Thus Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogues, COCU (Consultation on Church Union), etc. We thought that "Anglicans would lead the way," I think.

    Wondering how you would assess that movement, Lionel, and whether there is for those who have opposed the Covenant an alternative idea that moves toward that kind of "organic" unity--or whether from your point of view that's not a meaningful goal?

    Bruce Robison

  2. I loved your play on angels-angles. And I totally agree about the poorly constructed nature of this document. Since many of the so called orthodox players have already left the Covenant in the dust it is amazing that anyone continues to consider it at all.
    The EC's resolution may well do the trick of keeping it up in the air while we study further the implications for our C&C. But I also think we could reply that since there are so many demands for the Covenant's revision we will be glad to consider the document when it reaches some final perfected form.

    Michael Russell
    San Diego C4 2012

  3. For the sake of readers who are perplexed by Mike’s comment, I should explain that my essay originally contained this sentence: “Verily, I say unto you, it could have us arguing about who is allowed to count the dancing angles and what methods of enumeration may be used.” Of course, “angles” was an inadvertent typographical error. A Freudian slip, perhaps, or the work of the Holy Spirit. Anyway, I corrected the mistake, but not before Mike wrote his comment.

  4. I presume the Episcopal Church might opt for 'further study' at GC and still be considered 'in the process of adoption'.

  5. The General Convention should have the courage of its convictions. It should declare that the Covenant program is a thinly disguised plan to punish The Episcopal Church and transform the Communion in ways that we want no part of. We should reject the Covenant, not kick the can down the road. If this makes our enemies happy, so be it.

    As for any sort of widespread union, I have long thought that Communion talks with the Roman Catholic Church (for example) are a complete waste of time. Although the churches of the Communion claim to be in communion with Canterbury, they don’t all claim to be in communion with one another. How can the Communion qua Communion negotiate with anyone? On the other hand, I have been pleased with TEC’s recent agreements with the Lutherans and Moravians. We are also talking to Methodists. These less ambitious negotiations are not only more likely to bear fruit but also likely to have practical, as opposed to abstract benefits.

    Let me be clear, however, I do not think that everyone should be Episcopalian. Different Christian traditions speak effectively to different people. We are united in Christ; further union may be helpful, but it is not essential.

  6. Lionel, you make a very significant point about the adoption clause of the Covenant.

    Is there any indication that those who have already said 'yes' have taken any co-ordinated action? Is there any news that they've set up a Covenant office? Or are they just waiting to see what comes next?

    The implication of your argument is that all provinces can play - except the Philippines.

    In reality I guess the initiative lies with the ACO - another example of centralisation.

  7. ++RW has some interesting comments about the Covenant at about the 9 minute mark of this interview on Vatican Radio--in the context of his meetings in Rome this past week. Good to listen to the whole thing, about 13 minutes.

    Bruce Robison

  8. Thanks for the link, Bruce. I knew about the audio, but I hadn’t yet searched for it. I won’t be able to listen until after church, however.


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